GENEVA (AP) -- The U.N.'s aid coordination office, backed by Britain, Germany and Qatar, is launching its biggest-ever appeal for funds for a single country in hopes of collecting $4.4 billion to help Afghanistan, a decidedly ambitious call to assist the impoverished country again run by Taliban militants when much of the world's attention is on Russia's war in Ukraine.
"Ukraine is of vital importance, but Afghanistan, you know, calls to our soul for commitment and loyalty," said Martin Griffiths, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ahead of Thursday's pledge drive. "In simple terms, the humanitarian program that we are appealing for is to save lives."
Less than a year after Taliban fighters toppled its internationally backed government, Afghanistan is buckling beneath a debilitating humanitarian crisis and an economy in free fall. Some 23 million people face acute food insecurity, the U.N. says.
"The economy is too weak to sustain the lives of everyday people, women, men and children," Griffiths told reporters on Wednesday. "Given these terrible circumstances, we are asking donors today to fund the largest humanitarian appeal ever launched for a single country: We are calling for $4.4 billion to help the people of Afghanistan, at their worst hour of need, for this year."
The appeal is three times what the agency sought for Afghanistan a year earlier, a request that was exceeded once donors saw the needs that would have to be met after the Taliban takeover.
"I have no doubt that we will not achieve the target of $4.4 billion tomorrow in pledges, but we will work on it," Griffiths said.
Since a leadership meeting in the southern city of Kandahar in early March, Taliban hard-liners have issued repressive edicts almost daily, harkening to their harsh rule of the late 1990s, further alienating a wary international community, and infuriating many Afghans.
The edicts include a ban on women flying alone; a ban on women in parks on certain days; a requirement that male workers wear a beard and the traditional turban. International media broadcasts like the BBC's Persian and Pashto services have been banned and foreign TV series have been taken off the air.
A surprising last-minute ban on girls returning to school after the sixth grade shocked the international community and many Afghans. In schools across the country, girls returned to classrooms on March 23 -- the first day of the new Afghan school year -- only to be sent home.
"Constraining rights based on gender is contrary to the values that we all hold very dear, and also is a constraint on the development and eventual prosperity of this extraordinary country that we are here to assist and serve," Griffiths said. "We want to see those prohibitions, those constraints removed."
"I hope it will not mean that the pledges that we have from this conference are limited," he added.
Many donor countries are seeking to help beleaguered Afghans while largely shunning the Taliban, fearful that its repressive rule might return -- but the aid agency suggested that political and economic engagement from abroad should return one day, too.
"It's very important for the international community to engage with the Taliban over time on issues beyond the humanitarian," said Griffiths. "The humanitarian assistance is no replacement for other forms of engagement."